Missouri’s Republican attorney general is defending a local high school football coach who came under fire for allegedly leading students in prayer.
At issue is a complaint against the Cameron R-1 School District from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, national association of atheists and agnostics.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation alleged that the high school football coach and assistant coach illegally led students in prayer before and after games. In an October letter to the district, foundation attorney Chris Line wrote that the head coach violated the U.S. Constitution “because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee.”
The establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from favoring one religion over others.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in a letter to the district this week blasted the foundation as “an extreme anti-religion organization that seeks to intimidate local governments into surrendering their citizens’ religious freedom and to expunge any mention of religion from the public square.”
“I write to assure you that the Establishment Clause does not prohibit public prayer, and that the First Amendment protects the rights of public-school students to engage in voluntary prayer in public spaces,” Schmitt wrote to the district superintendent. “In fact, public invocations to God constitute a cherished part of our national history.”
Schmitt added that if the foundation “seeks to silence voluntary prayer outside of Cameron’s football games through a lawsuit, we will support your football team’s lawful, voluntary decision to pray.”
Line said the foundation currently doesn’t plan to sue, and he said Schmitt’s letter ignores the focus of the complaint.
“Students have the right to pray in school,” Line said. “What’s not OK is coaches either leading students in prayer or Bible studies, or even participating.”
Schmitt wrote that “no coach or other Cameron official has forced any football player to participate in prayer or taken any action against any player who chose not to participate.”
“It’s not really a choice,” Line said. “They’re going to feel immense pressure and coercion to make their coach happy and to make their teammates happy.”
Associated Press requests for comment to Superintendent Matt Robinson were not immediately returned.
But in a Nov. 4 letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Robinson wrote that the district “will be performing an investigation into the allegations and concerns raised in your letter, pursuant to District’s non-discrimination policy and policy regarding religious expression, to determine whether District policy has been violated.”
“The District will also take immediate interim measures to protect students from further possible violations of District policy,” the letter states.